Posted on Aug. 14, 2014 (
The news of the tragic death of actor and comedian Robin Williams has made its way through the news broadcasts and social media. It has been followed by poignant remembrances and tributes, illustrated by clips from his films and comedy appearances that remind us of why he was so well-loved. And now, almost inevitably, the attention has begun to turn to a discussion of depression and addiction and their impact on individuals and families. It is a discussion we should welcome long after the shock and sadness of his loss has passed.
As health care professionals, this is a conversation that we participate in every day. We see depression, addiction, and other forms of mental health issues in all of their forms and all of their stages. We know that at least 30 percent of people in our communities — of us — will face a mental health issue at some time in our lives and that mental health issues are distributed throughout our community without regard to gender, race, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, educational attainment, or any other distinguishing characteristic. About 12 percent of the individuals we see in our Emergency Departments are here because of something related to mental health.
While suicide — 38,000 suicides per year; 750,000 attempts in the U.S. alone — is to see depression at its extreme, in health care across this country we see the 16 MILLION people whose lives are impacted and often crippled by illnesses and issues that are still highly stigmatized and rarely discussed.
If respect means believing in the value of each person regardless of who they are or are not and how they present themselves to us, then stigma cannot be a part of our vocabulary or practice. In this matter, attentive, compassionate, and skilled care begins in how we are involved in and lead the conversation about mental health.
For many years, the word “breast” could not be uttered in polite society (The New York Times would not print it, for instance), and as a result, information about breast cancer — the second-leading cancer killer of women in the United States, next to lung cancer — was largely unavailable to the general public. The result was that breast cancer itself was stigmatized as improper to discuss.
Betty Ford, wife of then-President Gerald Ford, changed all that with her public disclosure of her breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent mastectomy. That was in 1974. Her candor and honesty — and insistence on a public discussion of breast cancer — changed the conversation. It is impossible to calculate how many lives have been saved through the early screenings for breast cancer since that moment.
Perhaps we stand at a similar moment for mental health issues. Our voices are relevant and necessary if our communities are to have increased awareness and throw off the stigma of mental illness and make treatment available for those suffering and dying from its impact.
Robin Williams gave us three amazing performances that were rooted in the role of health care in our culture. He played a mental patient turned medical student in “Patch Adams.” He was a fictionalized version of neurologist Oliver Sacks in “Awakenings.” He won an Academy Award for his portrayal of psychologist and therapist Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting.” In these roles, Williams pushed forward the conversation about mental health — and forced his audiences to look at the treatment of crippling mental and neurological illness without cultural stigma, and through fresh eyes.
In the fulfillment of MultiCare’s mission, and in living out our values, we must effectively address the mental health issues facing individuals and our communities — addressing them with honesty, passion, commitment, and extraordinary care.
Bill Robertson, President and CEO
Bill Robertson has served as MultiCare's President and CEO since May 2014. He came from Adventist HealthCare, Inc., based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Prior to Adventist, Robertson served as CEO of Shawnee Mission Medical Center near Kansas City, Kansas. More stories by this author